The makers of Second Life (Linden Lab) have announced that as of today the client software for its virtual world will be released under an open-source license (GNU GPL version 2). This means that the outside development community can help improve the existing software needed to log-on and interact with Second Life, as well as create completely new versions of the client, such as a cut down version for mobile devices. It's hoped that by harnessing outside developers, Linden Lab can spend more time working on the server-side code, which - for now at least - remains proprietary.
All of this sounds like a good move by Linden Lab, and good news for the virtual world's community as a whole. The Second Life client could do with a major UI overhaul and desperately needs to be made easier to use for less tech-savvy users.
However, it also raises a number of issues around the future of Second Life, and virtual worlds in general. Will Linden Lab eventually open up the back-end, so that others can build a grid that is also compatible with the Second Life client? This would, in effect, mean that different virtual worlds could interoperate. Whilst Linden Lab aren't committing to such a move, they hint that they may consider it in the future.
From their FAQs:
We don't (yet) plan to release the code that runs our simulators or other server code ("the grid"). We're keeping an open mind about the possibility of opening more of Second Life; the level of success we have with open sourcing our viewer will direct the speed and extent of further moves in this arena.
At the same, Fortune magazine is reporting that Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale (and other executives) do see a future where multiple virtual words will connect with one another:
Rosedale and other executives say they fully expect there eventually to be multiple virtual worlds that use Linden's code, or that at least are interoperable with Second Life, so avatars can pass from one world to another. Says Rosedale: "Say IBM builds its own intranet version with our code that's somewhat different from Second Life. But it's probably not that different. A user may say 'Wow, this virtual thing IBM's built is pretty cool. Now I want to go the mainland.' And we have another customer."
Perhaps the most interesting question is what effect an open grid would have on virtual land prices? As Linden Lab currently makes most of its cash by controlling the price and availability of virtual land (server space) -- if third parties could also provide 'land' (creating a free market), Linden Lab would lose its monopoly and that could damage its bottom line.
Related post: Virtual worlds need open standards